Gabrielle Jamela Hosein

At Night

Nighttime. When she should be falling asleep, she asks the most questions. They come out of the quiet of our breathing next to each other. They come intermittently, in between the rise and fall of her chest, like the soft breeze slipping through the windows from the Northern Range. 

What we joke about as her “deep philosophical questions”, always at nighttime, may be a tactic for staying up late, but they also seem to come from far away, from thoughts she took to their logical conclusion, from questions she collected along the way there, from difficulties that generations have pondered and which it is now her turn to work through. 

In the middle of the Black Lives Matter marches, on one such night, she asked me, “Mummy, do you wish you could be White?” She wanted to know if only White people were allowed to go to America. Her nine-year-old antennae had picked up news of protests, and she was struggling to understand the rules that had been broken. 

Few other questions disturb like this one, for it’s clear that the place it comes from is deeply self-negating, and, yet, historically inevitable. She continued, “Does everyone hate Black people?” My heart hurt. For her, because I had no ready answer or solution. My head hurt. I hadn’t anticipated that our commentaries on the extent of anti-black violence, both global and local, would have left her awake and uneasy.

“No”, I explained, “not everyone hates Black people, but there is a lot of racism against them. There is nothing wrong with being Black, what is wrong is to judge somebody by their race or the colour of their skin”.

I tell her that she is Indian. I come to understand myself as a privileged representation of Indianness that she doesn’t see in herself. I emphasise that her ancestors came from India and she is Indian just as much as I am. I tell her that she is African. I say that her ancestors came from Africa and that they struggled and survived. I tell her that our skin enables us to see that we carry them all, and their legacy of being brave, working hard, resisting exploitation, and creating a better world. We must love ourselves for this reason, for this connection. 

“In their honour, in their memory,” I said, “We must not want to be White. Close your eyes, it’s late.” But it took a long time before her breathing became steady. 

From having a daughter who is part-Indian, and part-African (which, as with many in the Caribbean, also means mixed with European), I’ve learned that I understand nothing about being Black. I don’t know what it is like for other Indian mothers of part-African children, but each day as I learn more, I realise how little I know.

Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné. “Grow Love”

It’s been humbling. I recognize that my appreciation is highly political and intellectual, but not lived or personal. I have only come to understand my limitations through seeing how she encounters the world in her body, with her hair, and through her own eyes. Often, I don’t have a language to answer her questions, except to say that she is beautiful just as she is. Looking at her, I’ve learned that the privilege of not having to live the harms of anti-blackness becomes perilous inexperience, and even blindness, when you must prepare someone else who has to.

She has often told me that she wishes her hair was long and straight like mine. She compares our (similar) skin colour and says that she wishes she was light like me. Partly, I know she just wants to look like her mummy. Mostly, I’m appalled that my own hair and skin (both stand-ins for race) are symbols of her feelings of inadequacy. I can block Whiteness in dolls and books, though much less on the internet, but I can’t block a greater devaluation of African features that she’s somehow come to understand and accept.   

And it’s not the skin colour or hair differences between us that matters, it is that they come to mark unequal value. It’s that she’s familiar with this even as a child, even in a family that is fiercely committed to justice. It’s that she has learned to discern minute differences, the way one learns the nuances of a language, without my ever using those words. 

I tell her that her hair is beautiful. It’s thick and curly, a privileged form in a hierarchy she will later discover. I tell her she’s the same colour as I am and I don’t see the difference she sees. She’s nine and has impossible criteria for cool so she wrinkles her nose when I tell her that I love that she is my sapodilla, beautiful, brown and sweet. Attentive to a world of US music videos and children’s movies, school peer culture with its minutiae of cruelties, and birthday parties where parents put long blond Elsa plaits in party bags, Whiteness sets the standard in her world. 

I wonder what to do with that in the long minutes that I stay awake. I’m like every Caribbean parent trying to bring up children to love themselves for who they are, knowing that a lifetime of such resistance is their only option, for this world does not allow innocence or escape.

Race and colour are interwoven with our relationships within and across our communities and families in difficult and cluttered ways. We often don’t get the conversations right publicly, but we rarely share how we struggle through them privately. 

I’ve read pieces by Indo-Caribbean writers and activists holding our communities to account for anti-black sentiments, statements and hostilities. I admire these articulations of self-reflection and their call for cross-race solidarity. I’ve read pieces by mixed Indian-African children, described as Dougla in Trinidad and Guyana, also speaking about rejection by Indian extended family, and feelings of not belonging.  The word Dougla comes from an older Bhojpuri slur for mixed-caste children, and became transplanted onto racial mixing in the Caribbean. 

There remains intolerable anti-blackness in Indian communities. There are also Indo-Caribbean community experiences of marginalization and discrimination over the second half of the 20th century which are absolutely real and have fed such hostility. Acknowledgement of the two and how they rub against each other is painful and requires listening on all sides. 

I grew up with parents who joined the Black Power student sit-in in Sir George Williams University computer lab. I grew up with a mother who identified as Black in the now passé meaning of passionate and committed pan Asian-African solidarity. I grew up among bonds between Indians and Africans of the Caribbean left in the 1970s, groundings through which race-consciousness moved and its rancor consciously resisted. My grandmother spent the second half of her life with an Afro-Trinidadian husband, my Dougla cousins were never put down, and I was never exposed to family narratives of dissent. All that feels like an antiquated past, and an assemblage of selected memories, but my parents also accepted my daughter’s Afro-Trinidadian father, and not once was my daughter made to feel less than adored for her unique cipher of continents and ancestries. 

As Indians (including mixed-race Indians) writing our histories, and writing ourselves into the Caribbean, even while we rightfully call out our families and political parties, we also need to tell our complex and imperfect stories of generations of solidarity, intimacy and acceptance. The racist Indian community in the Caribbean is an over-determining stereotype, a cognitive and polemical shortcut, in danger of being a single story. 

Still, even with all that love and history, Ziya is conscious of skin colour and hair texture in all the disquieting ways with which we are familiar and in all the ways that make her wish she was other than who she is. I lie awake at night, an Indian mother, wondering how to raise a daughter of Africa right. I have trouble discussing her European ancestors, for I am not sure yet how to explain the nexus of labour exploitation with sexual violence, and I am not sure where such history fits with my efforts as a mother to nurture her sense of Dougla, and Indian and African, pride. I quibble with the shadows over which counter-narratives to wrap in her jahajin bundle[1], wondering whether they will sustain her in communities she claims, and those which may not claim her in return.

Everyone does not hate Black people, but the negation of blackness is historical, systemic, contemporary, ubiquitous and mundane. I have no experience of it, not like hers. When protests spark in Port of Spain over police killings that target poor and predominantly Black bodies, I want her to see her connection, to see her place and mine in these struggles in the Caribbean. We talk over dhal and rice, and I ache to protect her as she navigates loss of innocence. 

Not only Afro-Caribbean people are wrestling with the meaning of anti-blackness in their lives. As an Indo-Caribbean mother, so do I and, yet, it is clear that motherhood provides only shafts of insight, like moonlight, illuminating how little I know and how much I must learn from my blossoming beti[2], hugging up at night until she falls asleep.


[1] Jahaji bundle describes the cloth bundles in which indentured Indians wrapped their belongings, from seeds to holy books, as they travelled on ships to the Caribbean. Jahajin is the feminine form of jahaji bhai or ship brother. I use it as a metaphor to refer to matrilineal and feminist legacies of indentureship, which include cross-race intimacies and solidarities, which we carry with us today.

[2] Beti is Hindi for daughter. 

Gabrielle Jamela Hosein is a Caribbean feminist writer, scholar and organizer. Her recent writing on Indo-Caribbean feminisms can be found in the journal, The Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, and on post-indentureship feminisms in the edited collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Genealogies, Theories, Enactments. Her spoken word beginnings are in the Rapso movement in 1998, and her poem, Chutney Love, was published in the 2018 Commonwealth Foundation collection, We Mark Your Memory. Her blog, Diary of a Mothering Worker, has been published weekly in the Guardian, then Newsday, newspapers since 2012.   

2 thoughts on “Gabrielle Jamela Hosein

  1. This brought back many memories of the tough questions my kids asked. I was often “wowed” by the questions or sent into a semi-panic because I didn’t have an immediate answer (example: Mommy, who was God’s mom?)
    I cannot imagine having to answer questions about skin color that you were asked and make it meaningful while keeping your daughters self-esteem in tact, but you did it! Bravo Mama!
    The art work accompanying this article is also outstanding 🙂

    Like

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